Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Mark Twain Library 2002 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a mostly very funny book, presented from an adolescent's point of view and in his own dialect and voice, telling tales about honest simple folk as well as rascals and rapscallions, depicting some very flawed individuals, and clearly laying out many of the abuses and contradictions of slavery. The book is set before the Civil War, in 1835-1845 in the Mississippi Valley, during the time of Samuel Clemens' childhood. It is problematic to many modern readers for its repeated use of the word "n_____r", the childlike and patronizing depictions of black slaves, and the cruelty that Tom shows by making a game out of Jim and not immediately freeing Jim from his imprisonment. Huck's own upbringing supporting slavery is shown to undergo an evolution in which he finally concludes on his own that it is morally wrong.
Huckleberry "Huck" Finn is 13-14 y/o, has no mother, and his father is a drunk who has not been seen for a year. He lives with the widow Douglas, who has taken him for her son, and her sister Miss Watson. They live in St. Petersburg, the fictional equivalent of Hannibal (on the Mississippi River in upper Missouri). He recounts how he and Tom found gold in a cave, and that his share of $6,000 is in the bank as arranged by Judge Thatcher. He is not happy with his constraints, does not care about Moses or other dead people, and isn't worried about going to hell. He is lonely and sneaks out at midnight to join Tom Sawyer, who plans to start up a band of fake robbers.
In the dark, the two boys sneak past Miss Watson's slave, Jim, who hears them. They play a trick on him, which makes him think he has been visited by witches. They join up with Jo Harper and Ben Rogers, row a boat down the river to a cave in the hillside, and form a gang of highwaymen. According to the ever-imaginative Tom, they will murder their victims, or at least hold some for ransom.
Miss Watson instructs Huck in praying, which he finds useless since he does not get what he prays for. Huck's father may have drowned a year ago--there was a corpse which could not be identified. Huck discusses one of his many "facts" from his extensive lore of misinformation, namely that female corpses always float face up, whereas males float face down. They play "robbers", attempt to rob a Sunday School picnic with bad results. Tom claims there were A-rabs and Spaniards there, but that Huck could not see them due to enchantment (as in Don Quixote). Tom also mentions genies, and later Huck tries unsuccessfully to invoke one by rubbing a lamp, as in Aladdin.
Huck does poor in school and hates it, plays hookey. He sees tracks in the snow, fears his Pa is back. He quickly tries to give his money to the Judge. Jim uses a magic hair ball (as in African voodoo) to read Huck's future. Pap appears in his room.
Pap, c. 50 y/o, resents Huck's schooling and "putting on airs", demands he quit school. Pap can't read, and has Huck read to him to confirm Huck can. He is dirty and in rags. He demands Huck's money, but Judge Thatcher refuses. He tries to wrest Huck from his guardians, which Judge Thatcher and widow Douglas oppose, but the new optimistic Judge in town allows it. Pap is jailed for drunkenness. The new judge tries to reform him, dresses him well, but Pap soon trades his new clothes in for whiskey and just gets drunk again.
Pap keeps trying to get the money, forces Huck to stop school, finally steals Huck and takes him to a cabin in the woods 3 miles up the river on the Illinois side. Huck stops school and hunts, fishes, smokes, and cusses--finds these pretty good times. He is held virtual prisoner with the door locked when Pap is away. Pap rails about the govment and a free black man who has become a professor, gets drunk, threatens to kill Huck, gets the DTs. Huck's plans to escape, gets down Pap's gun to protect himself.
Pap awakens and Huck has to explain why he is holding the gun. It is June and the river is rising. Huck captures a drift-canoe. He catches catfish on the trot line. Pap goes into town, and Huck saws out of the locked cabin, steals provisions, and kills a wild pig to stage his own murder and a robbery. When Pap returns at night, Huck quickly launches the canoe to escape, and floats down to Jackson Island (real-life Glasscock's Island), where he sleeps until morning.
The townspeople (including Tom, Becky Thatcher [the judge's daughter], Sid Sawyer [Tom's half-brother], and Mary [Tom's cousin]) fear he has been murdered and search for Huck's body from the ferryboat. The ferryboat uses a cannon ostensibly to force his body to rise to the surface of the river, and they also launch bread containing quicksilver which should seek out the corpse. Huck waits 3 days, eventually finds a campfire on the island. He paddles to the Illinois bank where he hears men. Returning to the island, he discovers Jim, who thinks Huck is a ghost until he tells his story. Miss Watson, unable to resist the $800, was going to sell him down the River to New Orleans. So he escaped the night after Huck was "killed". Huck promises to keep quiet about Jim, even though he knows he would be despised as an abolitionist. Jim tells some of his many superstitions, and how he lost money in speculating. Jim wants to flee on a raft.
They hole up in a cave. Heavy rains and flooding come. Huck is happy to be there with Jim. [A ghost story told by Jim was inserted here originally but deleted eventually by Twain]. A frame house floats by with a dead man inside, shot in the back (we later learn Jim identifies him as Pap, but Huck does not look at him). They salvage what they can from the house, including a wooden leg.
They find $8 in the salvaged clothes. Jim nevertheless fears bad luck since Huck handled a snake skin a day earlier. Three days later Jim is bitten by a rattlesnake, confirming the bad omen, and is laid up sick for 4 days. They catch a 200 lb. catfish. Huck goes to the outskirts of St. Petersburg dressed as a girl, and encounters a stranger woman who takes him in to her home.
Mrs. Judith Loftus says Huck's father and also Jim are suspected of the murder and that bounties have been placed on their heads. Pap got some of Huck's money and got drunk, and went off with some hard looking strangers [those Huck heard in chapter 8?]. Her husband is planning to go after midnight to hunt Jim on the island, where she has spotted smoke. She soon figures out that "Sarah Williams" is actually a boy--he claims to be George Peters heading for Goshen. Huck returns to the island, starts a diversionary fire to attract the searchers, heads back south on the island, finds Jim, and they quickly launch the raft.
They get past the island. Later they tie up on a towhead (a sandbar that has cottonwoods on it) to lay out of sight during the day. They build a wigwam on the raft. The 5th night they raft past St. Louis. Huck steals chickens and other food items to eat at night (his pap taught him that this was a good deed, that it is okay to steal as long as you plan to pay it back). They encounter a storm.
[This passage was added by Twain in 1883]. The steamboat Walter Scott has been wrecked on the rocks. Huck and Jim sneak aboard and see a light. Two men are arguing, Bill and Jake Packard: Bill wants to murder the 3rd (Jim Turner, who once killed another man), but Jake would prefer that Jim just drown as the ship breaks up. Huck resolves to set the murderer's skiff adrift. Their raft meanwhile has broken away.
Huck and Jim sneak around in the dark and escape in the gang's skiff (which is full of plunder), eventually catching up with the raft. Jim goes on in the raft, while Huck takes the skiff and lies elaborately to a ferryman so the man will rescue the rapscallion gang on the Walter Scott. The wreck glides by, nearly submerged, but no one answers when Huck calls out--perhaps they have all drowned. Huck paddles back to rejoin Jim at the raft.
They inspect the stolen wares that were on the skiff: prime seegars, clothes, books, etc. Huck reads to Jim about kings, dukes, and earls. They discuss King Sollermun (Solomon--Jim misses the point about Solomon dividing the child), the executed King Louis XVI and the French dolphin=Dauphin, and the French language.
They are about 3 nights from Cairo, where the Ohio River enters (it is the desired path to the free states in the northeast and freedom for Jim, whereas continuing south leads further into slave country). On the 2nd night in a fog, Huck in the canoe and Jim on the raft are separated. When reunited, Huck pretends Jim was merely dreaming of their separation. But Jim shames him by explaining how he had so missed Huck and feared for his safety, and Huck regrets and apologizes for this trick. [This night is when they probably pass Cairo.]
Huck swims and boards a large raft with 4 sweeps at each end--he hopes to find out how far Cairo is. Thirteen men are drinking, telling tales, singing loudly, sparring. Two comic braggarts, Bob and the Child of Calamity, threaten each other, but a smaller man Davy knocks them both sprawling and calls them sneaks and cowards. The men dance a break-down, and one pats
Juba (rhythmic hand patting adapted from African dance). They discuss the merits of drinking the muddy Mississippi water (after it settles out). Ed tells a ghost story about Dick Allbright and a baby he murdered (Charles William Allbright) who returns repeatedly in a haunted barrel--it concludes when Dick drowns himself holding the baby. They discover Huck, who claims initially to be Charles William Allbright, and force him overboard.
Huck worries about aiding Jim escape, and wrestles with his conscience, knowing he would be held to blame, that he could easily tell somebody to stop him. But Jim is talking about his family, wanting to buy his wife (near Miss Watson's) and steal back their 2 children, using abolitionists if necessary. Huck is shocked to hear this talk of crime, and resolves to paddle ashore in the canoe to inform on him. But Jim expresses his gratitude to Huck for helping him get free, saying Huck is the only white who has ever kept his promise to him. But before Huck can launch, 2 armed men approach them in a skiff, looking for escaped slaves. Huck covers up for Jim, suggesting he has smallpox, and the men give him $40 and rush off. Huck knows he has done wrong, believing he cannot at this point learn to do right, but also knowing he would not have felt better if he had given Jim up to the slave hunters. He decides not to worry about the moral issues anymore, just do what comes handiest. Jim is exceedingly grateful for Huck's clever dodge.
That night they hide the raft ashore near a town [?Columbus KY], but a man refuses to tell them where Cairo is. After laying up in the morning, they see the clear water on the east side representing the inflow from the Ohio, and so Huck knows they have already passed Cairo and the Ohio River mouth (presumably in the fog 2 nights earlier). Jim is terrified. The canoe has disappeared and a steamboat soon smashes the raft, all bad luck brought on by the snake-skin. Huck goes ashore to a log house near the Kentucky/Tennessee border, near Compromise, KY and not far from New Madrid, MO.
Huck is taken in by the initially suspicious and wealthy Grangerfords, Saul and Rachel, who suspect their enemies, the Shepherdsons. are up to something. He is clothed, fed, and befriended by their son Buck (who is also 13-14 y/o like Huck). He lies about his identity, saying he is George Jackson and had fallen off a steamboat. Their dead daughter Emmeline had a morbid fascination about death and wrote "Tributes" poetry before she died. They live in a nice double house.
Huck is treated hospitably in the prosperous aristocratic Tennessee home of Colonel Saul Grangerford. He has sons Bob, Tom and Buck, and daughters Charlotte and Sophia. Each child has a slave. He had three more sons, but they have been killed, plus Emmeline has died. The family has a long running feud with the Shepherdson clan, lasting 30 years, and no one can recall the inciting reason, though many have died since. Buck shoots at Harney Shepherdson but only hits his hat--later Saul approves the effort though not the cowardly ambush method. At church, the 2 families pay lip service to brotherly love, faith, and good works, etc., though always armed and on guard. Sophia arranges with Huck to deliver a note to meet with Harney Shepherdson and run off with him. Slave Jack leads Huck surreptitiously to see Jim, who is in hiding and has restored and reprovisioned the raft. Word gets out that Sophia has run off with Harney. Shooting begins, Buck tells Huck his father and 2 of his brothers have been killed, and later Buck and his cousin Joe are killed. Huck and Jim escape on the repaired raft.
In a famous passage, Huck rhapsodizes about sunrise and the idyllic life and sights along the Mississippi. They have no need for clothes. It's lovely to see the stars--Jim and Huck discuss whether they were created or just happened. Huck finds a canoe and goes ashore [it isn't clear why at this point they do not turn around and paddle north back to Cairo]. Two men fleeing the local town (unnamed) ask Huck for help and hop in his canoe--they head back to the tow-head. They are carrying carpetbags and do not know each other, but decide they should team up. The 30 y/o has been selling injurious patent medicines and is a journeyman printer, and dabbler in phrenology and mesmerism--but he claims to be the rightful Duke of Bridgewater. The older man 70 y/o was running a temperance revival while nipping on the side, but also works with faith healing and preaching--he claims to be the Dauphin of France--i.e., he is Louis XVII, eldest son and rightful heir to the throne--and calls the other Bilgewater. Huck and Jim are impressed and call him Your Majesty etc., but soon decides they both are liars and frauds.
Huck makes up a story to explain Jim's presence. The duke and the king take over their beds on the raft. The duke discusses acting roles, showing off his printed bills, and planning for the two to act out Romeo and Juliet as famous actors from England. At a camp meeting near Pokesville, the king solicits funds to stop piracy in the Indian Ocean, claiming he himself is a reformed pirate. The duke makes money at the printers, and prints a fake poster for a runaway slave from a New Orleans plantation. They will use this to pretend they have captured Jim, tying him up to so they can run during the day.
The 2 frauds ("Capet" and "Bilgewater") rehearse their upcoming Shakespeare program aboard the raft: Romeo & Juliet, the sword fight from Richard III, and the duke's mangled soliloquy of Hamlet. The handbill promotes their acting. In a southern Arkansas one-horse town (Bricksville), they learn there is a circus and decide to stage their performance after it. They tour the town, and encounter hicks with straw hats chawing tobacco, lazy talk and mud streets, and an eroding waterfront. The drunk Boggs rides in and insults Colonel Sherburn, who later shoots the unarmed man in cold blood, and walks off. Boss's daughter weeps over her slain father. The mob decides to lynch Sherburn.
The mob arrives at his house, but he defiantly confronts them from his roof, insults their bravery, and stares them down. He claims any real lynching will be done at night. Huck heads for the circus, watches a man planted in the audience leap up as if drunk and onto a horse in the ring, shed many clothes, and ride about standing on the horse. That night they put on the Shakespeare show, but it is poorly attended--the frauds make plans and a handbill to put on an alternate show about The King's Camelopard [giraffe], or The Royal Nonesuch, with children and ladies not admitted--this ploy will draw the men in.
The rapscallions con the town with The Royal Nonesuch and flee with $460. Huck tells Jim about King Henry VIII, etc. (his view of history is garbled), and he and Jim comment on their own smelly rapscallion aristocrats. Later Huck hears Jim groaning--he misses his wife and children ('Lizbeth and Johnny), and recounts 'Lizbeth's deafness after scarlet fever.
They dress Jim up as a crazy King Lear as disguise. The frauds go to separate towns on either side of the river, the duke to [?Columbia] Arkansas, and the king to nearby [?Greenville] Mississippi with Huck. The king and Huck encounter a young boy, who they give a ride to the steamboat. With encouragement, the boy relates the full story of how Mr. Peter Wilks has died the night before. His brother George and George's wife have already died. His remaining brothers Harvey, a preacher from Sheffield England, and William (deaf and dumb) have not yet arrived, though word has been sent. George has left behind daughters Mary Jane 19, Susan 15, and Joanna 14, who has a harelip. Peter left a will saying where his money is hidden and instructing his property to be divided between George's girls and the brothers. The king sees a bonanza in the making, and sends Huck to fetch the duke. They hatch their plan. Landing in the village, they seek their brother Peter. The king weeps bitterly on learning his brother has died, puts on a great act of mourning, to Huck's great disgust.
The 2 frauds mourn Peter's death, comfort George's daughters (the duke remains in character, mute). They find Peter's letter allocating $3000 and the house to the girls, the tanyard and other land and $3000 to the brothers. But they only find $5585 in the cellar, so decide to make up the difference. They cleverly give all $6000 to the girls, assuming they will make more from the sale of the property to come. The king resorts to false etymology to explain his use of "funeral orgies". A doctor Robinson arrives and claims they are frauds, warning the girls, but the beautiful Mary Jane shows her faith in the uncles by giving them the money back to invest for the sisters. The doctor walks off in disgust.
The men and Huck are hospitably lodged by the sisters. Joanner grills Huck about England (he is ostensibly the valet or servant to Harvey) and catches him in contradictions, saying he has been lying. But her sisters rebuke her for her inhospitality to their guest. Huck resolves to steal back and return the money to the sisters. The duke is uneasy and wants to get out of town, does not want to rob orphans, but the king wants to wait to sell the property and knows the sales will not prove to be valid. Huck hides and overhears the men hide the money in the straw tick of the bed--later he steals it.
Huck has the money but is blocked from escaping the house, so finally has no choice but to hide it in Peter's coffin. At the wake or vigil in the parlor, the stealthy undertaker glides to the cellar to quiet a dog that has caught a rat. He finally screws shut the coffin and Peter is soon buried. The frauds proceed with the sales 2 days later, and split up mother and son slaves, selling them to separate locations--this shocks Huck and the townspeople, and leaves the duke even more uneasy. Later the king asks Huck who has been in their rooms--Huck says it was the slaves that were sold, and the frauds assume they have stolen the money.
Mary Jane is distressed about the breakup of the slave family, that this has nearly spoiled her anticipation of going to England with the king. Huck debates, resolves to tell her everything, confesses to her the fraud of the "uncles". He wants her to keep quiet and leave town for 3-4 days so Huck can save Jim--he tells her he is stuck traveling with the frauds for a while, as he fears traveling with Jim alone. He reassures her the auction and sales will be invalid. He gives her the Royal Nonesuch, Bricksville, as a reference to incriminate the men when the time comes. He tells her in a note that the money is in the coffin. She leaves as he has instructed, without seeing her sisters. Huck lies to Susan and Joanna about how Mary Jane is visiting Hanner who has the mumps, etc., and will also be going to see the Apthorps to ask them to buy her house. The auction takes place. The true brothers and rightful heirs arrive!
The true brothers face off against the frauds, and all are questioned by the lawyer Levi Bell and the doctor. They know Huck is lying when he tries to describe England. The lawyer compares handwriting to former letters of Harvey's, and finds that neither of the two Harvey's writing matches the known samples. The new William has his hand in a sling, so cannot provide a sample, even though the new Harvey says it was William who always wrote his letters. They ask about a tattoo on Peter, and each describes a different one. The men assembled decide to dig up Peter's corpse to resolve this question. But before they find the tattoo, the money is discovered in the coffin. Huck escapes in the confusion, finds the canoe, and heads to the towhead where Jim is hiding--the two quickly head down the river. But soon the duke and king arrive in a skiff and join them.
The king confronts Huck, who lies his way out of this trouble. The frauds accuse each other of attempted theft of the money, the king is forced under duress to confess to plans to stealing. They finally get drunk and make up, both having admitted to planning to steal the money.
They continue down the river, arrive at Spanish moss (near Columbia Arkansas). The frauds resume their con without success, then conspire to sell Jim. The king goes in to Pikesville [said to be in S. Arkansas near Columbia]. Huck frees himself from the frauds, but learns that Jim has been sold and is being held at Silas Phelps's place south of town. The king had used the poster to represent Jim as a runaway from New Orleans and sell out his reward for $40.
Huck wrestles with his conscience and his teachings about slavery, worries about the shame that he will be exposed to back home, that Providence is watching his evil deeds in attempting to free the slave, that he will face everlasting fire. He is debating going against his upbringing. He tries but cannot pray. His heart is just not in turning Jim over to his rightful owner, and he knows this would be wrong. He tries to write a letter to Miss Watson saying where her slave is, but then he thinks of all that Jim has done for him and his kindness. Finally he resolves to not turn Jim in and thus to go to hell.
He runs into the duke who tries to get him out of the way by sending him into the back country, but Huck doubles back and heads for the Phelps's place.
Huck arrives at Silas and Sally Phelps's farm. She has been awaiting her nephew Tom, and greets him as Tom, calling in her children Lize (presumably also Matilda and Thomas) to greet him. Huck plays along, trying to find out who he is supposed to be, amazed at his good luck to learn he is supposed to be Tom Sawyer. She asks about Sid and Mary.
Tom Sawyer arrives, is reassured to learn that Huck is no ghost. Huck asks him for help to free Jim, and Tom readily agrees (after catching himself), assuming the role of his half-brother Sid (after first pretending to Sally that he is a stranger). Tom tells Huck how pap has never been seen again. The 2 frauds are tarred and feathered and run out on a rail, and Huck feels some sympathy for them--Jim had told the local folks about the fraud's scandalous show in Bricksville.
Tom deduces where Jim is being kept and plots with Huck to free him. Huck puzzles why Tom would be willing to participate in this crime, which might bring shame on Tom's respectable family. They follow the black man feeding Jim, conceal their acquaintance with him, blame Jim's recognition of them on witches, and alert Jim to their intentions.
Tom recalls tales from European novels on grim imprisonments and harrowing and complex escapes (Baron Trenck, Casanova, Benvenuto Cellini, Henry IV, Dumas's Iron Mask and Count of Monte Cristo, etc.), and instructs Huck in how to follow these examples to plan Jim's escape. Tom emphasizes style above all.
They proceed on the plans, stealing supplies. Tom would prefer to prolong the efforts before Jim is freed [he is fanciful and dreamy like Don Quixote whereas Huck is pragmatic like Sancho Panza]. They visit with Jim and coach him in what to do. Coming in with servant Nat, they discover the dogs inside with Jim--Tom calls them witches to explain how they could have crossed the locked door (actually they have entered through the secret passage the boys have created). They plan a witch pie in which will be concealed a rope ladder (entirely unneeded but called for in the books Tom has read).
Tom confuses Silas and Sally when the stolen items are discovered missing, leaving them befuddled and blaming Silas's absent mindedness, the rats, etc. They prepare the witches pie containing the rope ladder and some tin plates.
Tom pursues his elaborate design for the escape: a motto ("Maggiore fretta, minore atto"), a coat of arms, pens fashioned from metal, mournful inscriptions carved on rock, pet spiders and rats in the prison, pet garter snakes made to look like rattlesnakes, and a flower nourished by Jim's tears.
They get in trouble for the captured rats and snakes, which escape into the house. They have sawed Jim's bed leg to which the chain is attached, and swallowed the sawdust. Jim dislikes the snakes and rats--the latter sometimes bite him. After 3 weeks, Tom starts "nonnamous letters" from the servant girl (played by Huck) warning of imminent trouble and a gang of robbers coming from the Indian Territory to rob the farm.
The Phelps are agitated. Tom sends Huck to the cellar for butter, but Sally catches him and he places it in his hat. He is placed in a room with 15 armed farmers gathered to catch the thieves, and the butter gradually melts from inside his hat over his face [as in Don Quixote]. Sally sends Huck upstairs but he quickly goes down the lighting rod to the ground. The boys rush to free Jim, but the armed men also come in the dark to the hut. The boys and Jim escape over a fence as shots are fired--they reach the canoe, and use it to reach the raft. But Tom has been shot in the calf, and Huck and Jim insist that Huck go to fetch a doctor, though this will put Jim's escape at grave risk.
Huck fetches the doctor, lies to him about the circumstances,, and the doctor takes the canoe alone to where Tom is holed up. Next morning, Huck runs into Silas, who takes him home--Huck claims to have been hunting Jim with Sid. The house if full of folks--they marvel at the acts of crazy Jim (actually the ruses Tom perpetrated)--and how spirits must have been involved. Sally has been terrified with fear. She asks Huck not to sneak out again.
A letter from Tom's Aunt Polly arrives, but Huck hides it. Tom is carried in, Jim is reimprisoned though now in more extensive chains, and some are threatening to hang him and beat him, but the doctor defends Jim for his bravery and faithfulness to Tom. Tom soon tells Sally all about how he freed Jim, and when he learns Jim was recaptured, he informs her that Jim was freed by Miss Watson in her will, that Tom only wanted to pretend free him for the adventure of it. Aunt Polly arrives to find out what Sally meant when she said Sid and Tom were both there, and all the boy's lies are revealed (though Jim is indeed a free man). Sally cheerfully accepts Huck into her family.
Huck asks Tom why he staged the elaborate evasion if Jim was already free. Tom had wanted to run Jim down the river in the raft, then tell him he was free at the mouth and take him back on a steamboat. They free Jim from the heavy chains, make a fuss over him, feed him well, and Tom gives him $40, which pleases Jim greatly. Tom plots with Huck and Jim to have adventures in the Indian Territory. Huck assumes his money is now gone, but Jim advises him that the corpse they saw in the floating house was actually pap. Tom recovers from the bullet wound. Huck feels he needs to light out for the Territory, since aunt Sally is going "to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before."